The Steelers’ defense has played relatively well over the last month. Going up against the Falcons, Ravens, Panthers, and Colts, the Steelers’ defense is allowing just 16.2 points per game over that span. However, now they will face a Las Vegas Raiders offense that averages 24.1 points per game and is 8th in the NFL in yards per play.
How much of a test will it be? Well, for one, unlike the other four teams mentioned above, the Raiders have a multifaceted offense that has proven to be able to explode both through the air and on the ground. Josh Jacobs leads the NFL in rushing yards and his explosive 229-yard day against the Seahawks to guide the Raiders to win was impressive.
Through the air, the weapons are impressive. Davante Adams is still one of the league’s best wide receivers, and in recent weeks, he has proven that with his top-tier performances. The 6-8 Raiders are finally healthier, too. Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow both missed time, but they are now back. That’s not even mentioning Foster Moreau and Mack Hollins. This is an extremely impressive group of weapons.
So, how can Teryl Austin and the Steelers’ defense contend with the high-flying Josh McDaniels offense? Well, it will not be easy.
I think you have to, because when you look at their skill position guys, I mean, they’re really good across the board,” Austin said. “They’ve got the Pro Bowl tight end [Darren Waller] coming back into the fold, Davante Adams, [Hunter] Renfrow is getting back into the fold, No. 10 [Mack Hollins] is a big down-the-field threat. They have a few more things that they can probably get to, in terms of allowing us to just really stack the box and get as many people in the box. So, that’s going to present a big challenge for us, and we’re going to have to be able to hold up maybe playing lesser guys in the box.”
Stopping Josh Jacobs
That could be the test for a defense that has yet to contend with that since they faced the Cincinnati Bengals, who torched them for 37 points to down the Steelers in a loss at home. The Raiders are banged up on the offensive line, but Jacobs brings an entirely unique aspect to the offense. It is tough to say who needs to be stopped the most, but there is a good argument it should be Jacobs.
“Absolutely, you have to because he is a good back, got a low center of gravity, really good contact balance,” Austin said. “You see guys kind of fall off of him. The one that really stuck out to me was in Seattle when Big Al Woods had him. Big Al Woods is a big man, and he kind of shook that guy off and went for a touchdown.”
However, can you stop an elite running back when the receiving weapons are that good? Pittsburgh has to answer that bell. And more importantly, can they slow down the receiving group enough to get off the field? The fact of the matter is that the run game has been the focus for the Steelers over the last month, and their sole focus. During this week, they have to worry about multiple factors.
“This is a running team, they’re one of the best running teams in the NFL,” DeMarvin Leal said. “You’ve got to stop the run, and that’s when all the other targets start to rise. If we can stop the run, we can get everything to put us in a position to win the game.”
The plan for the Steelers this week? Stop the run and then pin their ears back and get after Derek Carr. Pittsburgh’s pass rush has come on strong in the last few weeks, with T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward starting to truly round into form. Las Vegas does not have a plentiful playbook. In fact, while effective, they are quite predictable.
As outlined by Tashan Reed of the Athletic, the tendencies the Raiders carry are staggering. In shotgun, they pass the ball more than 80 percent of the time. However, they only work in shotgun about half of the time, 3rd least in the NFL. When they are under center, they run the ball nearly 70 percent of the time. Then, there are the personnel tells. In 11 personnel, the Raiders often pass, reaching 75 percent of the time. They will bring on fullback Alec Ingold to play 21 personnel, but that nearly always ends in a rushing play, climbing to nearly 70 percent of plays.
“If you’re not stopping the run, they won’t stop running the ball,” Isaiahh Loudermilk said. “I think it comes down to if you’re not stopping the run, you have to get that stop and still step up in the passing game. But this all starts with stopping the run.”
The Davante Adams Factor
Harder than anything to come about from the game could be the force that is Davante Adams. Make no mistake, Pittsburgh will focus on slowing down Jacobs first, but when one of the best receivers is going to face a likely mismatch, that changes things. The Steelers could shut down Jacobs, but Adams is the type of receiver who can change the tide of the game by his lonesome, and the secondary is on notice.
“He knows a lot of times at the top of his route what guys are looking for,” Austin said. “He’ll hit you one way and go the other. I mean, it’s really good to watch. I don’t like having to defend it, but I appreciate it, I think we all do, we appreciate a great player. I think that’s what he is. Really, it’s his talent, and his above-the-neck game is outstanding.”
The Steelers’ secondary is on notice. Moreover, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick remember what happened a year ago when Henry Ruggs torched Pittsburgh en route to a defeat. It was not the way that the Steelers saw the game going down a year ago, but Adams adds an entirely new dynamic to the game than it had last year. Pittsburgh is willing to step up to that challenge.
“He’s a dynamic guy,” Edmunds said. “I wouldn’t say you can technically take away a dynamic guy like that. You just have to limit his targets and catches. That’s the type of player you have to put two people on.”
What About the Weather?
Then, there is the fact that the weather will present unique challenges. There will likely be snow on the ground and the temperature could hit as low as five degrees with 20 miles per hour winds. It could completely change how either team plays the game, and alter gameplans. But don’t tell Austin that fact. After all, football is still football, right?
“I don’t even bring it up,” Austin said. “Bottom line is, we’re both going to be out there, we’ve both got to play. Football is football. On our side, destroy blocks and get off blocks, tackle the ball carrier, don’t let the ball go over our head. That’s going to lead to a good day for us. If we think about anything else other than that, then we’re going to leave ourselves in a position for a bad day.”
Carr would seem to agree with that fact. It does not quite get that cold in Las Vegas, but Carr has played in his fair share of snowy games. In fact, the Raiders are relishing in the fact that it will harken back to the olden days of a historic rivalry. However, Carr is 0-6 in games in games where the temperature has been 37 degrees or cooler. That trend has to be broken in order for the Raiders to get their seventh win.
“It is what it is,” Carr said. “Anytime I’ve ever gone into one of these games, usually if it’s raining or stuff like that, you can prepare. But just cold, 90 percent of it’s mentality or probably more. You just set your mind because you know they’re playing in it, you’re playing in it. At the end of the day, you have to execute at a high level. And so for us, it’s all about the execution of the football plays.”
Pittsburgh expects to see a heavy dose of the Raiders’ ground game as a result of some of the temperatures and wind. If snow is involved, too, it could be hard for the teams to really push the ball down the field. Make no mistake, that fact is on the mind of the Steeler defense.
“There are things that can wear out a QBs arm, especially in the cold like that,” Leal said. “Then, we those guys get hit, it’s pretty much over with from there. I think they’re going to run the ball a lot. If we do our job correctly, I think we can do some good things.”
It will be a grueling matchup for Pittsburgh, but with their talent on defense, they have to be able to rise to the challenge and secure a victory.